It may be hard to imagine now but at one time Keanu Reeves as an action hero was a foreign concept. After breaking big as a goofy metalhead in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure it was director Kathryn Bigelow who went to bat for Keanu as the lead of the goofy stoner-surfer-robber epic Point Break (which itself inspired the mega-franchise Fast & Furious). He’d also logged a mournful teen drama (River’s Edge) and a high-minded costume drama (Dangerous Liaisons) by that point, setting the stage for a varied career despite near-constant criticism of his acting skills. This ability to pivot between extremes while retaining his aloof charisma would prove to be Reeves’ secret weapon, even as certain critics doubted him time and again.
And so it is with John Wick: Chapter 2, an unlikely sequel to 2014’s first outing that – despite barely making its budget back – pleased a lot of savvy action fans. And with good reason – John Wick was a well-choreographed ballet of bullets and blood that elevated its rampant gunplay into an intricate dance of death amid a whole world of contact killers with codes of honour. The franchise has allowed Reeves to double down on what’s worked in movies like Speed and The Matrix – namely finding good collaborators who give him space to kick ass.
Beginning in media res shortly after the events of the first movie, Chapter 2 finds John Wick reuniting with his beloved car and using it to mow down a bunch of nameless, vaguely-European thugs. Peter Stormare (the first of many recognizable faces) is the latest mob boss to speak of John Wick in hushed and fearful tones. The difference is that once reunited with his muscle car, Wick is whole again (or at least as close as he can be following the loss of his dog and wife). One (fantastic) action sequence later and he’s already retired to a monk-like life of quiet solitude.
Of course he’s reluctantly drawn back into the movie’s well-sketched underworld through a convoluted blood-oath that he swore in order to escape retribution for past transgressions. It’s an even flimsier excuse for wanton murder than the first movie’s heartstring-pulling dogicide but – who cares? – Shakespeare this ain’t. Although Chapter 2 does indulge in some extremely stylized dialogue that rolls of the actor’s tongues, particularly in the mouth of Ian McShane, the unquestioned master of soliloquies as proven in TV’s Deadwood.
Riccardo Scarmarcio as the main baddie is Eurotrash personified and relishes his role, and in addition to some returning faces there’s even a Matrix mini-reunion as Reeves shares the screen with the former Morpheus, Laurence Fishbourne. Fishbourne’s subplot is patently ludicrous but in line with the tone of the film, and your tolerance for assassins who masquerade as hobos in New York’s subway is a good litmus test for whether or not John Wick is for you. It’s just this side of cheese, with an arch sensibility that’s mostly concerned with delivering cool lines and inventive action, all centred around Reeves’ stoic lead character. And this role is tailor-made for Reeves.
Stories of his intense training with master fight choreographer Yeun Woo-ping during the Matrix films and on his under-rated directorial debut Man of Tai Chi are examples of his discipline, as is the remarkable live-fire training video that cemented his firearm mastery. In many ways John Wick is a culmination of Reeves’ career, minus the philosophising that defined a lot of it. It’s a stripped down character – pure killing id and cryptic dialogue – and it fits Reeves like a glove.
All of that wouldn’t mean much without some novel action to back it up, and Chapter 2 delivers in spades. Beyond the opening car chase, there’s another elaborate club scene, a prolonged cat-and-mouse foot chase (pitting Wick against a rival assassin played by Common), and a first-person shooter influenced gunfight in the bowels of Rome. It’s also stuffed with such delightful scenes as Wick going to a gun sommelier and being fitted for a bulletproof suit. I think you know if this film’s for you and as a consummate action fan, John Wick feels to me like the best pure action series to come along since The Raid.
If anything, the movie goes by too quickly, resulting in an abrupt ending that sets up the inevitable part 3 but also makes this installment feel like a mere prelude. But when the action is this smooth and the overall ride so enjoyably insane, it doesn’t really matter. Not only is John Wick back, he’s probably here to stay.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Runtime: 122 minutes